Work underway to build Graterford Prison replacement

Prefabricated concrete cells are being assembled in Skippack Township, site of the state's new $400 million prison to replace 84-year-old Graterford.
Prefabricated concrete cells are being assembled in Skippack Township, site of the state's new $400 million prison to replace 84-year-old Graterford. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 02, 2013

Eighty-four years after Pennsylvania built the State Correctional Institution at Graterford to house thousands of the offenders crowding Philadelphia's old Eastern State Penitentiary, contractors are tearing into the red slopes of the former Mennonite farms in Skippack Township to build a $400 million replacement.

Engineers from building-materials contractor Haines & Kibblehouse, based a mile away, are using cranes to fit prefab concrete cells, poured in nearby Telford by Oldcastle Precast, into future cell blocks, stacking them like Legos.

The crews are putting up the second-most-expensive facility Pennsylvania has ever built. Only the Convention Center cost taxpayers more, according to state General Services spokesman Troy Thompson.

When finished in 2015, the new cell blocks, classrooms, and support space, surrounded by twin 40-foot fences and a LEED-certified earth berm, will replace the old prison and its reinforced-concrete walls as home to 4,000 offenders, including 700 serving life sentences.

"This is the city's prison," state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. More than one-quarter of Pennsylvania prisoners come from Philadelphia, home to about one-eighth of the state's population. Graterford is the state prison closest to the city.

The new prison will have two complexes, Phoenix I and II. Plans call for buildings to house women and death-row inmates, who currently are bused to prisons on the other side of the state.

Graterford superintendent Michael Wenerowicz said he was looking forward to more single rooms, with air-conditioning (extra-important for the many inmates under treatment for mental illness), and roofs that don't leak.

Housing units for the general prison population and the "restricted" offenders who spend most of the day in solitary confinement have been laid out so they will be simpler to monitor. Meeting space for education and counseling programs will be doubled.

The facility will open with about as many prisoners as Graterford houses. Graterford will be mothballed - not demolished - for possible future use.

The work follows four years of design changes, contractor lawsuits accusing Gov. Ed Rendell's administration of pro-union bias, and other delays.

"My first instinct was to pull the plug," said Wetzel, recalling Gov. Corbett's cost-cutting directives. "My assumption was we were not going to build this."

But Wetzel said his aides showed it could cost less to staff and manage a new prison than the old one - an estimated $70 per prisoner each day vs. the current $100 a day - though rising pension costs and other expenses will offset any saving.

The Corbett administration revised building specifications and rebid the job. Wetzel asked veteran staffers to check the design.

"It was an unusual approach, to be asked for input on any design plan," Wenerowicz said. "It was a very welcome development."

The superintendent pressed, for example, for separate door apertures for food and handcuffing to make it more difficult for inmates to attack guards, and for an ID barcard that tracks prison staff. Wetzel agreed.

The new prison will replace Graterford's monitors with digital cameras linked through on-site servers. Staffers persuaded the designers to scrap the planned butterfly-angled prison block with a "modified X shape, gaining a little more space for programs, management control, and prisoner contact," said Mark Dickinson, vice president of Hill International, the Marlton firm serving as the on-site representative for the state.

The winning design bid was a joint venture between the Atlanta architectural firm Heery International, which has an office in Philadelphia, and Walsh Construction of Chicago, which has a branch in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Walsh/Heery said it could build the prison for $313 million, with the rest of the allotted $400 million covering engineering, utility permits, and other "soft costs," Dickinson said.

Walsh/Heery has hired union-labor companies, including electricians A.T. Chadwick of Bensalem and Tracey Mechanical of Newtown Square. Other jobs are still being awarded.

Pennsylvania's growing prison population has fed an anti-prison movement. Seven members of the Philadelphia group Decarcerate PA were arrested at a protest against the new prison in the fall.

State officials know that even former lock-'em-up prosecutors such as State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Bucks-Montgomery) want to imprison fewer nonviolent offenders.

"[But] some people need to come to state prison," Wetzel said.

The state chose Phoenix as the name for Graterford's replacement after residents in surrounding Skippack Township objected to a proposal to name it after their community, Township Manager Theodore Locker said.

"The prison's been a decent neighbor," he added, noting that it had been there far longer than most of the community's upscale houses.

Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194,, or follow @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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